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HHS Secretary Talks Unaccompanied Minors At The Border, Addresses Criticisms

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Every day, hundreds of unaccompanied minors cross the border into the U.S. Homeland Security takes them into custody, and then they become the responsibility of the Department of Health and Human Services. HHS currently has more than 20,000 young people in its custody, and the Biden administration is rushing to open enough emergency shelters to house them. HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra is here to talk about how his department is tackling this problem. Good to have you here.

XAVIER BECERRA: Ari, thanks for having me.

SHAPIRO: I understand you're opening a facility today in Long Beach, Calif., that can eventually house up to a thousand young people. This is on top of shelters opened in other places in recent weeks. With hundreds of minors arriving every day, how much of a difference can this make?

BECERRA: Oh, it makes a world of a difference, Ari. What we are trying to make sure we do is follow the law, act responsibly. These are kids, and so we want to make sure that we treat these children not just the way the law expects but the way our moral authority would expect us to treat them. And so having Mayor Robert Garcia in Long Beach and the civic leaders there in the community invite us and offer the hospitality to right now it's 125, I think, kids - mostly girls, some of them tender age - that's going to be incredibly important.

SHAPIRO: But just in terms of number of beds versus number of people arriving, I mean, it seems like you're just in a constant race to keep up. And HHS estimates the cost is $775 per child per night. How do you just continue down this path?

BECERRA: So the most important thing we have to do, Ari, under the law is to make sure that the child is taken care of if they're under our custody, but more importantly, under the law, if they can be placed in the hands of a responsible sponsor while this child waits for the processing of their immigration case. So whether or not that child will be returned to the home country or stay in the U.S., while they're in our care and HHS' care, we have an obligation to make sure that they are cared for, they are fed and that they are provided with the basic necessities for any child. And right now, because of the influx, we have turned to these emergency - these temporary emergency sites. But for the most part, what we try to do is place them in what we call licensed care facilities.

SHAPIRO: According to HHS, it's taking more than 30 days on average for a sponsor in the U.S. to claim a migrant who has crossed over in HHS care, and that number has really not gone down more than a month. Why hasn't that number shortened? That seems like it would make a big difference.

BECERRA: Well, there - it varies, and it has come down. There are different categories of children. Some children have immediate relatives. They are far easier to place once we verify that these are indeed immediate relatives. Other kids don't come with relatives nearby or responsible people that can be found easily. Those kids do take longer to place. But we are finding that we are - now that we've tried to surge personnel to try to help us intake the information from these kids and any potential sponsor, we've been able to accelerate that. But you're right. It has been a challenge...

SHAPIRO: Although, the numbers are not going down, according to HHS. I mean, the amount of time it takes to pair a kid with a sponsor.

BECERRA: Well, again, it depends on the categories. We have been able to reduce the time that children who have immediate relatives are staying in these facilities. But the ones that don't have family members, immediate family members or can't verify it, those kids - it is taking longer to place them because we have to make sure that we don't put them in the wrong hands.

SHAPIRO: Sure. President Biden has now been in office nearly a hundred days, and it still feels like the government is playing catch-up on this persistent issue. Do you think there should be a more long-term sustainable plan by now?

BECERRA: We're working towards that long-term sustainable plan. Here's the issue. COVID has changed things dramatically. The licensed care facilities that could take 10 kids before are now reduced to half of that number or perhaps a number close to that. And so we're having to do more with less of these licensed bed facilities.

SHAPIRO: I'm afraid we have to wrap it up there, sir, but we appreciate your time. That's Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra. We appreciate your joining us.

BECERRA: Thanks, Ari.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE CINEMATIC ORCHESTRA'S "THE AWAKENING OF A WOMAN (BURNOUT)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.